The parable of the sower and the fruits of love

“Jesus said to his disciples:
“Hear the parable of the sower.
The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the Kingdom
without understanding it,
and the Evil One comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” (Mt 13: 18-23)

Jesus here speaks a parable about parables. This passage follows immediately the one from yesterday’s Mass reading, which was about parables and the varying ways in which people can see or fail to see, hear or fail to hear, understand or fail to understand. In this parable, he gives a series of images in order to explain further what he means. It’s fascinating to consider that instead of explaining why parables are not always fully accessible, or why some see/hear/understand and others do not, he uses another parable. Inside this parable is a reason why he might have chosen that way of speaking: because the word of God is important not only for its meaning, for the content that it signifies. The Word is fully understood when it moves from understanding into action.

St Augustine says something similar in On Christian Teaching, a text that I have slowly been reading and discussing along with a group of incarcerated men whom I visit. In this work on Christian preaching (among other things), Augustine says that if an interpretation does not serve to build up love, then it has not been fully understood. In addition, an interpretation that is incorrect, e.g., which misunderstands some aspect of the story, or misses some part of the metaphor, but still builds up love is still valuable, although it is to be “gently corrected.” He compares it to a person who has left the high road to his destination and wandered through the fields, yet arrived at the same destination. One might recommend to such a person to take the high road next time, yet still be glad that everyone ended up at the same place. The foundation of all good Scriptural interpretation is Love—does my reading conduce to what is truly loving? If not, the passage has not been fully understood.

Jesus’s parable speaks of the other side of the coin: how is it that we receive the Word, when we listen, or read it? He compares the word to seeds that may or may not sprout up and bear fruit. The kind of fruit that Jesus cares about, of course, is not material success, or fame, or security, but what St Paul later names as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

We might interpret Jesus’s words to be about different kinds of people, and that makes sense to me. However, even more, I like considering whether Jesus is speaking about different ways that all of us as Christians can respond or fail to respond to the word. We all have places in ourselves that are fruitful, and we all have places that we are resistant, or where we lack follow through, or where extraneous concerns interfere with our being life giving people.

Sometimes we fail to understand what is being said and the meaning is lost on us. For example, when Jesus on the Cross says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it makes a difference to know that he is reciting a Psalm that moves from lamentation into hope (Psalm 22). If we fail to understand that Jesus has hope in the midst of whatever else he experiences—pain, mental anguish, perhaps even a sense of abandonment—then we will miss out on the full meaning of how Jesus displays faith in the midst of suffering.

Sometimes we hear an idea and vow to live differently in light of what we have heard, and yet fail to act. For example, we can hear Pope Francis’s words about caring attentively for the poor, feel inspired, and yet do nothing.

Sometimes we hear the word and yet other concerns push away our time and attention, like overgrown thorns that need to be uprooted. Perhaps we want to care for the environment, but our attachment to our cars, air conditioning, newest phone, and jet travel encroach upon making any real changes.

And sometimes the Word bears fruit, and that fruit multiplies over and over again. Jesus, of course, also speaks of the grain of wheat that dies and bears fruit : Jesus himself. His death is fruitful. For us, too, the Word bears the most fruit when we are wiling to undergo all the smaller deaths and to give up of narrow concerns of “want,” “need” and “self”. Then we are freer to love others and to be fruitful.

Jesus’s parable gives us a way to measure our understanding: How are we living? Are we living lives of love? Where are the places that Scripture is easy to live, and where does Scripture challenge me? Where do I still need to pluck up the thorns, to die to self, and so to grow anew?